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4 Emerging Practices to Build a Strong Capacity-Building Program Ecosystem

What would it look like to have a healthy capacity-building program ecosystem? How would our approach to capacity building be different? The Kresge Foundation’s Fostering Urban and Equitable Leadership program – made up of a group of courageous capacity builders and nonprofits – is beginning to work toward an ecosystem like this.

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Efforts to invest in strengthening leaders and organizations have merit: Research has shown that capacity building of all types can produce positive, long-term financial results for nonprofits.

Yet nonprofits often say that finding the right provider can be difficult and costly, particularly when it comes to racial equity capacity building. Providers say they rarely have opportunities to build their own capacity or collaborate, which leads to a system in which each provider uses different language, tools, and frameworks and their work rarely builds on that of one another. And funders say they struggle to support nonprofits’ capacity in the way that is most meaningful to them and has the greatest impact.

What would it look like to have a healthy capacity-building program ecosystem? How would our approach to capacity building be different?

Imagine if nonprofits seeking racial equity capacity-building services had a variety of options, a clear understanding of those options, ample time to vet providers, and enough resources to hire them. Imagine if providers were regularly building their own capacity, too, and working together to align services so nonprofits received tailored, relevant, complementary training from everyone. Imagine if funders were true, responsive partners to nonprofits and providers in deepening their impact.

The Kresge Foundation’s Fostering Urban and Equitable Leadership (FUEL) program – made up of a group of courageous capacity builders and nonprofits (see the full list of providers here) – is beginning to work toward an ecosystem like this. Since race greatly impacts outcomes in every social issue, racial equity is embedded throughout the program.

The FUEL program gives about 120 Kresge grantees access to talent and leadership development services that incorporate a lens of racial equity to build stronger senior teams, stronger mid-level talent, more diverse talent, and more equitable practices in organizations.

We explored this vision for a better capacity-building ecosystem at the 2019 Upswell conference with Caroline Altman Smith from The Kresge Foundation, Jessica Vazquez Torres from Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, Mikaela Seligman from AchieveMission, and Monisha Kapila from ProInspire. The group discussed opportunities and challenges of building an ecosystem like this and shared emerging practices that demonstrate what’s possible when power is shared and everyone involved listens to and respects one another.

Funders have a role in creating a healthy capacity-building ecosystem by striving for certain elements in their capacity-building programs:

  1. Nonprofits have voice and choice. Nonprofits often understand their own needs best. In a healthy ecosystem, they have power to voice their needs and design the focus of capacity-building programs. Funders should allow nonprofits to decide how much time and investment they want to put in. For some organizations, a day-long training may be ideal while for others, a six-month program could be a better option. Funders might address this by offering various formats, from peer learning to coaching to consulting. Funders should also ensure nonprofits can choose the provider they want, perhaps from a menu of options. They can do this by aggregating a network of high-quality providers and helping to match nonprofits to their top provider choices. This puts nonprofits at the center of the work, meeting them where they are. In the FUEL program, nonprofits had voice and choice in how the program was designed and gave feedback throughout their experience in the program. For situations in which nonprofits don’t know what they need – which is especially common in racial equity capacity building – funders can connect nonprofits to providers and other grantees to offer guidance.
  2. Funders invest in providers’ capacity. In a healthy ecosystem, providers are strong so they can effectively support nonprofits, and their work is rooted in racial equity practices. Funders can bolster the field of capacity builders by investing in their internal operating capacities, racial equity capacity, and program work. In the FUEL program, providers received operating grants from Kresge that allowed them to do things like invest in their own diversity, equity, and inclusion training; strengthen their marketing and communications functions; and collaborate with each other to co-develop racial equity programs that were then offered to nonprofits.
  3. Providers collaborate with each other. In a healthy ecosystem, capacity builders have time and space to come together, learn from one another, and align their work. Funders can support this by convening providers and connecting them to each other. For example, the FUEL program intentionally created opportunities for providers to connect with each other through program calls and in-person convenings. As a result of these connections, some providers underwent other providers’ racial equity trainings. This not only helped deepen organizations’ learning and racial equity competencies, but as they saw each other’s work, they also began to see opportunities to collaborate, build racial equity-focused programs together, and partner in delivering existing services. For example, Change Elemental, ProInspire, and Crossroads Antiracism collaborated to develop the Learning Community to Operationalize Equity, a 10-month cohort that seeks to deepen participating organizations’ capacity to center racial equity and navigate power dynamics. AchieveMission and Crossroads Antiracism collaborated to co-design a cohort program focused on succession planning with race and gender at the center. These collaborations are ultimately strengthening each organization’s delivery of services and the field overall.
  4. Everyone involved focuses on building relationships through listening. A healthy ecosystem is grounded in relationships, which are developed in part through deep listening. Listening builds trust, creates opportunities for learning, and leads to better practices. For example, in the FUEL program, listening to the providers helped us at Community Wealth Partners realize ways we were perpetuating white dominant culture and led us to change practices, like relaxing program timelines so providers had more time to develop materials and nonprofits had more time to assess provider options. We also saw how other providers in the program deepened relationships with each other, which led them to create this vision for a stronger, more equitable capacity-building ecosystem.

Everyone in the capacity-building program ecosystem plays a critical role, and funders have great power to shape that ecosystem and, ultimately, effect lasting change. As you think about how to foster a healthy capacity-building ecosystem, consider these questions:

  • What is your vision for a racially equitable community? What do you hope will result from your capacity-building work?
  • Who are the players in the capacity-building ecosystem? Who’s not engaged in the system that should be?
  • How might you interact with those players to contribute to a stronger capacity-building ecosystem? Where do you see opportunities to shift power?


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